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Blinded by the ‘Red Scare’

Spot the odd one out: a) Orcs; b) Communists; c) Griffins; d) Velociraptors; e) Gorgons.

The answer is d) Velociraptors. Although all five are terrifying monsters, velociraptors are the only one that actually existed on the Earth at one point, many millions of years ago. The others are all wholly products of the imagination. Communists, Gorgons, and the rest are apparently mythical bugbears invented to terrify children. This lesson about the mythical nature of communism is brought home to you if you belong to any kind of professional organization in academe or education.

Regularly, one will read the obituary of some venerable hack who, circa 1950, faced terrible difficulties for his courageous stands on behalf of civil rights or labor unions. This was all part of the “Red Scare,” when Inquisitors sought out such brave freethinkers under the guise of pursuing those illusory “Communists.” Very rarely is it mentioned that, yes indeed, said hack was in fact a prominent and highly active member of the Communist Party, or a knowing sympathizer of several of its front organizations. And all this at a time when anyone with basic literacy skills knew exactly the nature of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

But you see, it was all a “Scare” and all Americans under 40 have been brought up to see the phenomenon in those terms. “Witch Hunt” is another common term, and what sane person accepts the reality of witches?

You can get a good sense of this rhetorical trick if you watch the 2012 film “The Act of Killing,” one of the most acclaimed documentaries of recent decades. The film examines the Indonesian massacres of 1965-66 by focusing on some of the surviving perpetrators, a bunch of elderly gangsters who in their day led lethal death squads. According to the film, these purges killed a million victims, which is roughly double the figure that most historians accept, but let that pass. So triumphantly successful was “The Act of Killing” that in the past year it has spawned a sequel,The Look of Silence. Expect multiple prizes and awards to once again follow. 

“The Act of Killing” is a multiply fascinating film, and essential viewing for anyone interested in official repression. Particularly fascinating are the close linkages portrayed between the venerable gangsters and ultra-right patriotic parties, with their paramilitary youth wing, and with media magnates. The film looks like a case-study of the Marxist theory of organized crime. And none of those depicted come off at all favorably, not gangsters, not magnates, not politicos. Let’s not argue: they are all very bad people.

But what about their victims? It’s a reasonable assumption that very few Westerners watching the film will have any great sense of Indonesian history or politics, and will thus accept the brief sketch offered in the introductory titles. In 1965, we are told, the Indonesian generals overthrew the nation’s government, before launching a deadly purge aimed against so-called Communists. “Anyone opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a Communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese.” So, we think, there was a coup, and the new regime unleashed its gangsters and paramilitaries against the innocent and idealistic, all as part of a mindless, paranoid, Red Scare. Any suggestion that actual Communists might have been targeted is scarcely considered, nor the possibility that such mythical creatures might have been genuinely dangerous. What decent person could fail to oppose a military dictatorship?

From multiple perspectives, that sketch is baloney. Let me explain.


A new nation born in the aftermath of the Second World War, Indonesia’s politics were tumultuous from their beginning. The country had a very active and militant Communist Party, the PKI, which prior to 1965 was three-million strong. That made it, in fact, the world’s largest nonruling Communist Party. It also had a potent tradition of ruthless revolutionary violence and putschism. Notoriously, a PKI rising at Madiun in 1948 resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of rivals. The organization was, in short, terrifying, and parallels to the Khmer Rouge are quite plausible.

In 1965, Indonesia’s ruler was Sukarno, a classic Third World dictator. In order to counter political rivals, he decided to lurch to the radical left and to seek the support of the PKI. Internationally, Sukarno aligned with Mao’s China, the most homicidal regime on the planet, which was then on the verge of launching its horrendous Cultural Revolution. Fearing a repetition of Madiun on a national scale, Indonesia’s armed forces intervened, overthrowing Sukarno and beginning a national purge of the PKI. Although “The Act of Killing” looks exclusively at the role of gangsters and paramilitaries, the reaction was in fact a national affair, with Islamic and even Catholic movements coming to the fore.

The repression killed around half a million people, the vast majority of whom were certainly PKI leaders and cadres. So yes indeed, they were Communists, and not just harmless labor organizers, landless farmers, or dissident intellectuals. Many were Party organizers and fighters, who were the mirror image of the gangsters we see in that documentary. If circumstances had been slightly different, they would have committed identical acts of repression and murder against the political right. Instead of random massacres, it is better to see the 1965 slaughter as an ideological civil war, which was fought with savage ferocity. Fanatics slew fanatics.

Beyond doubt, the repression was a brutal affair, which claimed far too many lives. Was it in any way justified? Legally, certainly not. But looking at history, I wonder how critics might feel if, in 1932, the German government had decided to massacre thousands of leaders and paramilitaries of the surging Nazi Party. Could such a pre-emptive mass repression ever have been tolerable to Western opinion? I do wonder.

The problem at hand, however, is that we have become so accustomed to the “Red Scare” mythology that it leads us to ignore the existence of truly dangerous extremists, and the lethal peril they pose.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [1] (Basic Books, forthcoming Fall 2015). He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

61 Comments (Open | Close)

61 Comments To "Blinded by the ‘Red Scare’"

#1 Comment By Junior On June 4, 2015 @ 4:57 pm

“But as evidenced by the signs ALL around us that everyone sees but few admit to, it is clear that they ARE in positions of power.”

And I would further say that it is precisely because of this mythology that our society propagates, through the media and schools, that the “Red Scare” was just a myth and that Communism is no longer a threat as Mr. Jennings states, is the VERY reason why few will admit it.

#2 Comment By Junior On June 4, 2015 @ 4:59 pm

I meant to say Mr. Jenkins. My apologies.

#3 Comment By JamesG On June 5, 2015 @ 9:29 am

Upon his death the FBI released their file on Howard Zinn.

In it he had vehemently denied every having been a member of CPUSA.

Also in it were quotes from others, self-admitted former members of CPUSA who told the FBI that Howard was not only a member but had lectured the membership on the finer points of Marxism-Leninism.

Zinn’s “History” book is used throughout USA schools.

That communist won his life-long crusade against his own country.

#4 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 5, 2015 @ 6:45 pm

Junior, you see far more substance to Trotskyism than I do. No doubt they appreciate your vote of confidence, in their capacity, not their goals and principals.

Howard Zinn… I don’t much care if he WAS a member of CPUSA, and I don’t much care for his insipid shallow histories, which are merely the doppleganger of the jingoism he lamented, but there is no less reliable source of hard data than “self-admitted former members of CPUSA.” Which is another reason that the Red Scare was a hoax, even if there WERE some hapless communists sitting in various civil service positions fulfilling the banal duties of their office. You know, there really wasn’t much that such poor souls could do for any real revolutionary movement anyway.

Someone I knew many years ago remarked that next time someone made a TV special report on Gus Hall running for president, it should be entitled “Its My Party, and I’ll Cry if I Want To.”

#5 Comment By Junior On June 8, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

@Siarlys Jenkins

“Junior, you see far more substance to Trotskyism than I do. No doubt they appreciate your vote of confidence, in their capacity, not their goals and principals.”

I think that their most recent example, the TPP trade deal, which is a further attempt at destroying the middle class and only further widening the income inequality gap along with its handing over of America’s sovereignty to an International Court which takes precedence over our own courts, says all that needs to be said about their capacity.

#6 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 9, 2015 @ 8:57 am

James G:

“Upon his death the FBI released their file on Howard Zinn. In it he had vehemently denied every having been a member of CPUSA.
Also in it were quotes from others, self-admitted former members of CPUSA who told the FBI that Howard was not only a member but had lectured the membership on the finer points of Marxism-Leninism.”

Um, so what? Assuming those members were telling the truth (and why do you trust CPUSA members?), what difference does it make?

If Zinn lied about his party affiliation, he probably had good reason to, in that being a CPUSA member was pretty much criminalized.

One might wonder what business the FBI had in keeping files on people’s expression of their First Amendment rights (and Congress in criminalizing it), rather than cry about their lack of success in keeping accurate files about it. Or boo hooing that someone lied to these Thought Police inquisitors.

“Zinn’s ‘History’ book is used throughout USA schools.”

Again, so what? Zinn’s book stands or falls on its own merits, whether he was a CPUSA member, or not. As an aside, his book is used in some colleges, and, at that, is almost always used in conjunction with other books, which present more conventional viewpoints. But even if that were not true, shouldn’t colleges (few to none K-12 schools use the book) and professors be free to use whatever books they want, even if written by communists?

“That communist won his life-long crusade against his own country.”

LOL! Did Zinn spy against the USA? Was he a Soviet agent? No. He was in fact a WWII veteran who risked his career fighting segregation and the Vietnam War. The USA is a better place because of Howard Zinn, and people like him.

#7 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 10, 2015 @ 2:39 pm

The TTP trade deal was the work of Trotskyists?

Junior, until I read that, I had never had cause to suspect you of genuine paranoia.

That’s almost as bad as talking about the Bolshevik-Jewish-Plutocrat conspiracy to rule the world. (OK, maybe you believe that too.)

#8 Comment By Junior On June 11, 2015 @ 3:18 am

@Siarlys Jenkins

“The TTP trade deal was the work of Trotskyists?”

Would you care to elaborate on why you think that the TPP trade deal, which hands American Sovereignty to an International Court, and destroys the middle class worse than NAFTA already has done to further increase the income inequality gap which would eventually result in class warfare, does not fit into the Trotskyists agenda?

#9 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 14, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

Would you care to elaborate on why you think that the TPP trade deal … does not fit into the Trotskyists agenda?

Well, I should note that I have no problem with class warfare. Class conflict and antagonism is something that exists, and if the working class can get a substantial edge over the capitalist class, its all good to me.

But to address your own framework directly, first of all, the inference that TPP indirectly has the potential to deliver results that might in some manner approximate something a Trotskyite might desire, does not therefore mean it was engineered, instigated, or advocated by Troktskyites.

Your attribution of authorship is rather like when I see that a light is about to change from green to red, and I step into the street, hold up my hand, and cry “Stop!” Lo and behold, the traffic stops, so that I and whoever I am with can cross the street. See how powerful I am, when I call on the traffic to stop, it does so!

Even assuming, which is a stretch, that Trotskyites see something good coming out of the TPP, it does not follow that they have a scintilla of the power, influence, organization, or presence to have had anything to do with making it happen.

Dogmatic, near-sighted, and incapable of learning from experience as Trotskyites are, I don’t believe any of them advocate turning power over to the International Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, or any other bourgeois institution. They might have speculative plans to establish some supra-national body of their own whenever they seize power, which is somewhat less likely than China becoming a socialist country in the next 500 years.

You might, just possibly, have a valid point that some species of leftists, not excluding Trotskyites, might favor increasing the income inequality gap so as to bring on the revolution. However, we all know how well this worked in Germany in 1933. In any case, it doesn’t mean that any of them have the slightest influence to make it happen.

Now, as to what the TPP WOULD do in fact, I don’t really know. Those who proposed it probably have a sincere belief it would improve prosperity for all. Organized labor is opposed, for well known reasons. But not even a Trotskyite, blind, deaf, and dumb as they are, would make it a programmatic agenda to strengthen imperialism and finance capital by putting together this sort of deal. After all, the workers of the world have NOT yet laid their hands on control of the means of production — and with Trotskyite leadership, they never will.

You are observing a dust storm on a dark moonless night and attributing it to forces of which you know next to nothing, on the ground that they might want to kick up a lot of dust if they knew how to do so.

Which, not coincidentally, is more or less how the Red Scare got started way back when.

#10 Comment By Junior On June 16, 2015 @ 3:45 am

I see what you’re saying. I guess that there’s no way to REALLY prove that Trotskyists are in any positions of power. It’s not like they’ve taken control of one of our political wings or anything crazy like that. Could you imagine?!

I mean how ridiculous would it be if there was, say, some guy who wrote a memoir called “Memoirs of a Trotskyist” or something, and was ALSO, say for the sake of argument, dubbed the “Godfather of Neo-conservatives” or anything as preposterous as that. I GUESS if that fairytale connection were real then MAYBE you could say that Trotskyists are in positions of power, but come on… make-believe nonsense. And even IF all that nonsense WERE true, you’d HAVE to be some kind of kook to make THAT connection of the two influences converging.

And it’s not like the Neo-Cons have any REAL power anyway, even IF that fictional Trotskyist memoir written by the fairytale Neo-con Godfather were true. It’s not like they could set the agenda for one of our former Presidents, or set the agenda for the majority of the candidates in the current election, or control all of the political debates on one of our nations most watched TV news channels. That’s just ridiculous! Quite obviously the ravings of a lunatic. That could NEVER happen! They couldn’t do something like get us into a bankrupting war and crash the economy sending us into a debt tailspin even if they WANTED to! I mean how ridiculous would that be if it were all true? Could you imagine?!

And so I guess you’re right, it must be my completely unfounded paranoia kicking in again. Thank you for grounding me. Now that you’ve changed my outlook into yours, especially with your traffic light analogy, maybe we can use YOUR vision to try to see if we can find the mythical Trotskyist Forest… if only all these damn ‘Red’wood Trees weren’t getting in the way 😉

All sarcasm aside, I agree with your statement of “if the working class can get a substantial edge over the capitalist class, its all good to me.” I DEFINITELY believe that the scales need to be EVENED back out. And trust me, I do NOT think that the Trotskyists are running the show. They are misguided fools that are ONLY pawns being used by the Global Elite to acquire more power. The Global Elite use the Neo-Cons who work behind the scenes of the GOP to bankrupt us through wars, and they use the Neo-Liberals like the Clintons and Obama to bankrupt us through trade deals. You and I just see their influence from different points of view. One of us thinks that the other can’t see the forest for the trees, and one of us thinks that the other is a paranoid traffic light 🙂

Great conversation Siarlys! Talking it out is the only hope we have of trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this world gone mad, AND what the hell to do about it. It sounds like a good middle ground would be to stay EVER vigilant of REAL threats and to question EVERYTHING by stepping OUTSIDE the narratives given to us and looking in, but ALSO making SURE that, that vigilance does NOT spiral out of control like it sounds like happened to your friend with the ANP. So what do you think, does that sound like lo and behold the light has turned red and it’s now safe for us to cross to meet in the middle of the street? 🙂

#11 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 16, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

I don’t know who you are talking about (you seem to imply that this mythical personage is, in fact, real) but history is full of individuals who profess fanatical devotion to the international socialist revolution one year, and spend the rest of their lives making their living off of denouncing their former selves. (Whittaker Chambers, David Horowitz…) So the fact that there is one such does not convince my that Trotskyites, neo-cons, and neo-libs are the fractional apparatus of the power elite. We probably agree on who the enemy is, but I still see no evidence that they see ANY value in controlling or using the negligible band of self-congratulatory misfits that Trotskyites amount to, if there even still are any.